Excitement or Overstepping?

When Buffalo president announced he would step down, local board announced interim successor -- despite lacking the power to do so.
September 3, 2010

The sudden news this week that John Simpson planned to retire as president of the State University of New York at Buffalo surprised many people on the campus and across the university system, with his reasoning -- that he wanted to return to California for family reasons, and that he was frustrated that the state's political leaders punted on legislation to help the university system -- leaving many wondering if they were getting the whole story.

That suspicion was in many ways compounded by apparent tension between Buffalo and SUNY leaders over who would choose the interim successor to Simpson, as evidenced in dueling news releases about the president's retirement.

Buffalo's own statement Monday stated plainly, and without equivocation, that Scott D. Nostaja, the university's senior vice president and chief operating officer, "will serve as interim president" when Simpson leaves in January. That word came from Jeremy M. Jacobs, who heads the UB Council, the panel of business and other leaders who oversee, but do not govern, the university.

At virtually the same time, though, SUNY's central administration put out its own statement, in which the head of SUNY's Board of Trustees and Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher praised Simpson's nearly seven years at Buffalo. The statement also said that Zimpher would be working with the trustees and the UB Council on planning for Simpson's departure -- including "the appointment of an interim leader."

The difference between the two statements jumped out at many observers, including editors at ArtVoice, a local publication in Buffalo. "How is it that Jeremy Jacobs, in his capacity as UB Council Chairman, could name Scott Nostaja interim president of the university?" the publication wrote. "It’s a good question, when you consider that the Education Law of New York grants the UB Council no such power."

Indeed, state law clearly says that SUNY's chancellor and trustees select the presidents of the system's campuses, on recommendations from the campuses themselves. David Belsky, a spokesman for the system, said in an interview Thursday that "we are going to be following procedure; the chancellor will be bringing this discussion to the Board of Trustees, and making a decision at the appropriate time."

So is it fair to say that the system is viewing what Buffalo officials characterized as the appointment of Nostaja as, in fact, a recommendation? "I guess you could say that," Belsky said.

A spokesman for the University at Buffalo, Joe Brennan, said in an interview Thursday evening that Jacobs and others at the campus "recognize that the ultimate authority [to select a president] lies with the chancellor and board," and that the "role of the council is to recommend."

Brennan dismissed the idea that Buffalo officials had overstepped their authority, although he acknowledged that the assertion that Nostaja "will serve" as interim president "perhaps was phrased a bit too definitely." Buffalo officials "don't have any indication that the chancellor or the board would feel any different than we do" about Nostaja's appropriateness for the job. "I think it was our confidence that led us to be a bit ..."

"Overzealous?" a reporter asked.

"Exuberant," Brennan said.


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